For an entertaining and sobering look at how America has changed--or not changed--over the past 50 years, you can't do any better than the impeccable production of Bruce Norris's Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Clybourne Park," which is now enjoying its western Massachusetts debut at the Barrington Stage Company (BSC) in Pittsfield, Mass.
Under the direction of up and coming director Giovanna Sardelli, this co-production with the Dorset Theatre Festival captures all of the humor and heartbreak of Norris' play, which also won a Tony Award as the Best Play of 2012. Norris uses Lorraine Hansberry's classic play "A Raisin in the Sun" as a jumping off point for his exploration of race, privilege, and neighborliness that takes place in two acts set 50 years apart in the same suburban home in the Clybourne Park district.
The first act opens in September of 1959, simultaneous to the events that occur cross town in the Hansberry play. A familiarity with "Raisin" is not necessary to fully enjoy the play, as both plays share one character, Karl Linder, a neighborhood organizer who is opposed to the sale of the house at 406 Clybourne Street because he has learned that it has been bought by the African-American Younger family introduced in Hansberry's play. That work features a scene in which Linder visits the Younger's to offer them a counter offer not to move which they decline. In Norris' play, Linder attempts to convince the white couple, Russ and Bev, not to sell, although their reasons ultimately turn out to be unexpected and heartwrenching.
Linder's efforts are complicated by the presence of Russ and Bev's African-American housekeeper, Francine, and her husband, Albert, their pastor and neighbor, Jim, and Linder's pregnant, deaf wife, Betsy. Some of the early humor derives from Bev's efforts to give a chafing dish to the African American couple who repeatedly stress that they have no need for one and Betsy's inability to understand much of the conversation unless her husband signs for her. As Linder's battle heats up, he tries to draw all of the others into his increasingly desperate efforts, resulting in a string of revelations regarding the impact of events over the past two years that have devastated the outwardly relaxed Bev and Russ.
Norris then jumps ahead 50 years to find the once-homey two-floor bungalow in a dilapidated condition following years of neglect and abuse resulting from a previously-thriving drug trade in the neighborhood, which for a while had been predominantly African-American. Now Clybourne Park, with its location close to the Loop, has become a desirable location for a new generation of trendy, wealthy suburbanites. As the neighborhood undergoes gentrification, with a Whole Foods replacing a long-shuttered family owned supermarket, a loose coalition of those who have remained after growing up in the community and some of the early urban homesteaders are trying to maintain the area's look and feel.
In this second act, we meet Steve and the pregnant Lindsey, the white yuppie couple who have bought 406 Clybourne, as they respond to a zoning appeal filed by a neighborhood African-American couple, Lena and Kevin, objecting to the plans to demolish the house and exceed the area's informal height standards by 15 feet. The new owners are joined by their high-pressure but distracted lawyer, Kathy, while Tom, the gay, level-headed chief of the Neighborhood Association attempts to arrive at a compromise. A contractor, Dan, ambles in and out of the increasingly digressive and unproductive discussions, as he attempts to remove a tree shielding a major discovery.
This act ramps up the hilarity, as cell phones, appointments and ridiculous conversational digressions thwart progress and raise tempers. This allows Norris to confront a modern audience with such issues as political correctness, underlying racism, moral or monetary superiority and openness to diversity, remarkably similar to the issues back in 1959, though with a contemporary spin. The jokes, however, do not minimize the serious, perhaps unresolvable, issues simmering just beneath the surface which still have the power to sting, since every character whether they are aware or not, bear some responsibility for the situation, some more than others.
Norris ties the two acts together not only through the dwelling itself but by providing two of the contemporary characters with indirect connections to the events of the first act. He also offers a touching coda that supplies a little more insight into a tragedy discussed in the first act and that asserts the primacy of a dwelling in retaining all of its memories--good and bad.
The time jumping structure allows Sardelli's cast to create a completely different character in each act, a challenge that these actors meet with amazing skill. Remi Sandri is stalwart as the home-selling Russ who only allows his deep feelings to angrily surface when pushed beyond a point of no return. It's hard to believe it's the same actor playing the laconic contractor, Dan. The same can be said for Carol Halstead's winning performance as the stereotypical 50's housewife, trying to efficiently plan her family's move, but burying her grief in an unreachable place. She then turns around and plays the no-nonsense attorney, shedding years and demeanor effortlessly.
Greg Jackson is fine in his two roles, first as the bespectacled Linder, his anger and desperation reaching an unbearable fever pitch the more he realizes his powerlessness, and then as the new buyer, Steve, whose life of white privilege has left him entitled as well as clueless about an inherent racism. Clea Alsip plays Jackson's pregnant wife in both time periods, first as the gentle outsider Betsy who can't quite comprehend what is going on and is unaware of the depth of her husband's divisive actions, and then as the high-powered yuppie wife cautious to remain politically correct at all times, while advocating for her precious 15 feet.
Lynnette R. Freeman and Andy Lucien play the reluctant couple dragged into the argument in 1959, believably portraying the couple's unwillingness to participate as well as their discomforted demeanor in being in the all-white neighborhood. Freeman gets to shine as the acerbic, outspoken Lena in the second act, who refuses to suffer fools gladly, even if those fools really didn't think they were saying anything racist or insulting. Lucien plays her husband Kevin as a man dreading one of his wife's inevitable outbursts and ready to jump and relieve whatever tension she may cause. It is clear through Lucien's performance that he can be equally exasperated by racism or privilege, but he chooses to address it in a different manner, if addressing it at all.
Kevin Crouch has the least showy role, first as the local minister Jim whose efforts to intervene prove haplessly ineffective and then as the head of the Neighborhood Association who tries to maintain calm and order, but finds himself equally unable to ignore cell phone interruptions from his regular job or from the local zoning office. He also gets to play a brief third role that serves to remind us of the home's full and unnerving history.
The house has been realistically designed by Narelle Simmons with an expansive first floor living room and a subtle hint of the upstairs rooms, with a natural warmth conveyed by wood finishes and appropriate wall coverings. During the intermission, Simmons' design allows the set to be easily changed to reflect the years of wear and tear, with torn wallpaper, plywood doors, broken windows and exposed electrical cords. Barbara A. Bell's costumes quite nicely capture each of the two time periods, helping in the second act, to quickly set the time and reflect the lives and statuses of the characters. Michael Giannetti's lighting accommodates sunny Saturday afternoons 50 years apart, flooding the scene with additional light through the empty windows and open doors of the more contemporary period.
'Clybourne Park" is one of the most performed plays among regional theaters this season and this BSC production shows why. It is, after all, one of the most entertaining "issue oriented" plays around, yet it doesn't diminish the seriousness of the matters being discussed. That's a delicate balance that Norris maintains, as does Sardelli and her cast, who all resist the temptation to get too maudlin in the first act or go too over the top in the second.
"Clybourne Park" plays on the BSC's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage through October 13. For tickets and information on the schedule, visit the theater's website at www.barringtonstageco.org or call the Box Office at 413.236.8888.
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